On Today’s Author Spotlight we are chatting with Mollie Elkman about her debut, The House That She Built – an empowering picture book that educates young readers about the people and skills that go into building a home.
Mollie, thank you so much for making this interview possible! I am thrilled to chat with you about The House That She Built, but before we dive in, would you like to introduce yourself?
Hi! I’m Mollie Elkman. Mom to Zachary (10) and Zoey (4). I own group two, a marketing company for home builders.
The House That She Built is your first picture book. What inspired you to write the book?
One of my favorite builders (Kristi Allen) who has become a close friend of mine asked us to help do the marketing for an ambitious project she was part of. An all-women-built home.
Being exposed to over 100 women in building throughout the project and learning about their different stories and paths into careers in construction was incredibly inspiring. These women are amazing and have great careers, yet most people don’t think of women when they think of construction jobs.
Title:The House That She Built Author: Mollie Elkman Illustrator: Georgia Castellano Publisher: Builder Books Published: September 14, 2021 Format: Picture Book
Some people may wonder, “Why do we need a home built entirely by women?”. How do you answer those types of questions and help folks understand the importance of the project?
Right now there is a skilled labor shortage, which is only projected to get worse. With less than 3% of construction jobs being filled by women, it’s really important to show that women are completely capable of having very successful careers in construction. We want all underrepresented communities to know there are many different opportunities and paths to success.
What was the research process like for The House That She Built? Did your experience as a second-generation business owner in housing help you along with the research?
So many women like myself were brought into the housing industry by a father or grandfather. We would love to help break that cycle by making more women aware of these career opportunities. One of the most moving experiences for me while working on the book was being in the garage of the project that inspired the book. The walls were filled with pictures of all the women who had worked on the home during all stages of the build. Most of these women are used to being the only woman on the average jobsite, so this project was really special because it emphasized that not only are they not alone, but there is room for so many more!
I love the way The House That She Built highlights the variety of skilled jobs needed to build a home. Even as an adult, I never really thought about how many people are involved in building a home. Are the 18 jobs found in the book the original lineup, or did you have to narrow down from a larger scope?
Ah I love this question! No one has asked this yet. We absolutely had to narrow it down and there are many additional careers that are important and necessary. We tried to focus on the logical order of jobs from the planning stage all the way to the final touches to show the progression. There are so many other roles happening at the same time, though like installing the windows and doors! The intent was to get kids thinking about the space around them and the different skills and people that went into creating that space.
I know that Georgia Castellano, the illustrator, is the creative director at your company, Group Two. Did you two work closely throughout the illustration process?
We did! Not just through the illustration process but really the entire process of marketing and publishing. Georgia is extremely talented and we work really well together. Beyond that, we are friends which made this experience really fun.
Do you have a favorite spread? If so, which one?
I would say my favorite is the General Contractor because she is based on Kristi Allen who I mentioned before. I feel like she gave me this amazing gift by bringing me into the project she was working on and it makes me happy to see the cartoon version of her represented in the book.
Is there possibly another book in your future?
Next up, we will have an activity book to go along with the book. It’s incredible and I can’t wait to share it. From there, I really want to develop some curriculum for schools that highlight the different skills in the book. There has been a real emphasis on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math) and this book fits really well into the conversation.
Is there anything else you’d like for Mutually Inclusive’s Readers to know?
Yes! This is a mission based initiative so all proceeds support workforce development initiatives in the homebuilding industry.
I would love to offer your readers a coloring page to download and print! It’s really fun to see how different kids can take the same image and create a completely unique finished piece.
It’s time for an Author Spotlight again, and I am so excited to be interviewing Rajani LaRocca, the brilliant and prolific author who is taking the kidlit world by storm. Rajani has published six books since her debut in 2019 in both middle grade and picture book categories.
Rajani, I am thrilled to be chatting with you today! I was originally introduced to your writing when I reviewed Bracelets for Bina’s Brothers, but you have so many other titles! Would you mind introducing yourself to Mutually Inclusive’s readers and tell us a bit about the kinds of books you write?
Thanks so much for having me! I was born in India, raised in Kentucky, and now live in the Boston area, where I practice medicine and write books for young readers. I’ve always been an omnivorous reader, and now I’m an omnivorous writer of fiction and nonfiction, novels and picture books, in poetry and prose. I’m inspired by my childhood and background, science and math, nature, cooking, and just about everything I see.
Your latest picture book, Where Three Oceans Meet, is being released this month. Can you tell us a bit more about the book?
Where Three Oceans Meet is about a little girl named Sejal who travels to the tip of India — Kanyakumari, where they say three oceans meet — with her mom and grandmother. It’s a fun road trip, where the three women see interesting sights, visit people they care about, and eat delicious food. And Sejal discovers what’s at the “end of the earth” is what she’s had all along: the love between mothers and daughters, love that transcends distance and transcends time.
What inspired you to write Where Three Oceans Meet?
I was inspired by a trip I took when I was a kid with my family, including my mom and grandmother, through South India to Kanyakumari. I thought about all the beautiful things we saw on that trip, and how what I treasured most was the little moments we spent together along the way.
If young readers only take away one thing from Where Three Oceans Meet, what message would you most want them to walk away with?
Even if they are far away, the people we love are still with us, giving us strength and joy.
Title: Where Three Oceans Meet Author: Rajani LaRocca Illustrator: Archana Sreenivasan Publisher: Abrams Books For Young Readers Published: August 24, 2021 Format: Picture Book
All of your books seem to have mathematical themes, and I was so glad to see the pattern continue with the theme of three in Where Three Oceans Meet. Was there any significance to the number three, or was it a stylistic choice?
I hadn’t really thought about the fact that there was a number in this book, but now that you point it out, of course there is! Three is an important number which symbolizes unity in many cultures. Because this book was inspired by a trip to Kanyakumari, where three oceans meet — The Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean — I decided to craft the story about three women in a family making a journey together. I also use the metaphor of a braid, which involves three strands of hair woven together, to symbolize the characters’ relationships.
Archana Sreenivasan created such beautiful illustrations to match your gorgeous story of love and family. This is your second book to be illustrated by Archana. Did the process differ between Where Three Oceans Meet and Seven Golden Rings?
I first worked with Archana for my debut picture book, Seven Golden Rings: A Tale of Music and Math, which was published by Lee & Low Books in October 2020. That book is set in ancient India and involves a math puzzle and an explanation of binary numbers in the author’s note. It won the Mathical Award for Grade 3-5!
The process was very similar for both books in that I had minimal involvement while Archana was doing her work! Archana is such an incredible artist, and her sensibility for each book was perfect—which is even more impressive, since the styles of these books are very different. In Seven Golden Rings, her style is more cartoon-like, and Archana illustrated the math puzzle and the thinking that went into it in the most precise and ingenious way! The writing in Where Three Oceans Meet is more lyrical and emotional, and Archana’s style and use of color matches perfectly. I know that Oceans reminded her of her own family—especially her grandmother—and this shines through in all the little details she included to make this family seem real.
Do you have a standout spread that is your favorite? If so, which one?
I love ALL the spreads—they are overflowing with love and joy! My favorite is about three fourths of the way through the book, when Sejal isn’t feeling well and overhears her mom and grandmother talking about how much they miss each other, since the grandmother lives in India and Sejal and her mom live in the U.S. Archana depicts memories and longing and love so beautifully on the page that it brings me to tears.
Where Three Oceans Meet is your fifth release in 2021! I’m blown away at the amount of work you can produce in a year, especially considering your job as a doctor and role as a wife and mother. Do you have any advice for writers (like myself) who struggle to keep producing new work consistently?
I always recommend that people find ways to write in the “nooks and crannies” of their days. We don’t need to write for hours at a time; sometimes writing for a few minutes is all we can do, and that’s fine! As a working mom, I have written in my car (while parked!) and at piano lessons, early in the morning and late at night, on my laptop, scrawled on napkins, and dictated into my phone. It’s important to catch the muse while you can and to put in the time even when the muse is in hiding!
I also find that setting small goals helps me, as well as making lists of current projects and their statuses.
Can you tell us what is next for you? Do you have any upcoming 2022 release we should know about?
After Where Three Oceans Meet, I have two more picture books coming in 2021! My Little Golden Book About Kamala Harris will release on August 31, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have written a Little Golden Book about our wonderful Vice President!
The Secret Code Inside You: All About Your DNA releases September 14! This is my first nonfiction picture book (and the first picture book I ever drafted!), written in rhyming verse and explaining the basics of genetics to kids. It also touches on the limits of our genes and how our actions also determine who we are.
In March 2022, I have a picture book coming with Candlewick called I’ll Go and Come Back. This story of my heart is about a girl who visits her family in India and feels lonely and homesick. Then her grandmother makes her feel better through play and reading and food. When the grandmother visits the girl in the U.S. and feels homesick herself, her granddaughter makes her feel better. The story is built around a phrase people use in Tamil: they never say “goodbye,” but instead “I’ll go and come back,” which holds the promise of return.
My second middle grade novel with HarperCollins comes out in fall 2022. It’s called Switch, and it’s about musical twin sisters who grow apart, impersonate each other at their summer camp on a dare, and find that music helps them find their way back to each other.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with Mutually Inclusive’s readers?
These past two years have been so hard for so many reasons. That makes the stories we tell, the art we create, more important than ever. But it’s also important that we practice self-care and give ourselves a break, too. Take the time to bring yourself small moments of joy, and remember that reading and thinking and spending time with loved ones nourishes the creative spirit.
That is such a great reminder, and one I really need to hear. Thank you for that, and for taking the time to answer all my questions!
I’m thrilled to have the privilege of interviewing Helen Rutter today for our latest Author Spotlight! Helen is a playwright, actor, and author of The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh, which is releasing here in the States next week. She lives in the UK with her comedian husband, two children, and two dogs. You can find her online at helenrutter.com.
Thank you so much for joining me for this interview, Helen! To get us started, would you like to introduce yourself to our readers and tell us a bit about The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh?
Hello! Thank you so much for having me! My name is Helen Rutter and THE BOY WHO MADE EVERYONE LAUGH is about eleven-year-old Billy Plimpton. He loves jokes and dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian but, because of his stutter, doesn’t think it’s possible.
What inspired you to write The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh?
The book was inspired by my son Lenny who stutters, I wanted to write a book starring a character like him. We had never read anything about someone who stutters before and so I thought it was a story that needed to be written, at that point I had no idea if it would be published!
Billy Plimpton is such a delightful main character. He’s funny, kind, and lovable, even when you want to tell him he’s making a mistake. Is Billy based on your son at all? If so, how has he reacted to the success of the book, and the way people tend to adore Billy?
I am so happy that people seem to love Billy as much as I do. He very much started out being heavily based on Lenny but, as time went on and the editing continued, Billy’s personality developed and grew further away from Lenny’s and he became his own unique character. There is still a lot of cross over, both Billy and Lenny love playing the drums, are great at maths and have a similar love of lists, facts, and detail! Lenny has been so chuffed with the success of the book and has even done TV interviews over here in the UK to celebrate its launch!
It must be hard, but extremely rewarding to write a story that you’re so personally connected to. What was the most challenging part to write? And which part was the most fun?
I loved writing this story so much, it helped me to understand Lenny a bit more and reading it out to him every bedtime was a real bonding experience. I think the thing that was the most challenging to write was the Granny Bread strand as that felt particularly emotive as my mum is now 82 and the character was firmly based on her. The most joyful scene was the talent show. As I wrote that scene I could almost hear the music swelling in the background and could totally imagine every second of it. I wanted to get up and cheer for Billy after writing that scene!
Title:The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh Author: Helen Rutter Publisher: Scholastic Published: August 3, 2021 Format: Hardcover
The supporting cast is made up of several other children in Billy’s school who are all finding their way in life with their own individual “issues”. I love that this cast really illustrates how we all have something that makes us “different”, and that there really is no “normal”. Was this a point you wanted to highlight from the beginning or did it come to you through writing the book?
Absolutely! I think that everyone feels different in some way, whether it is something that the world can see or something that’s hidden away. The characters all deal with their situations in a unique way and ultimately all of them are more empathetic because of what they are going through. From the start I wanted his friends and the supporting cast to be a celebration of uniqueness and a starting point for conversations about empathy.
If you could spend the day with one character from The Boy Who Made Everyone Laugh who would you choose, and how would you spend the day?
That is a tough question! I guess I’m not allowed to have a board game-based party with all of them?! If not then I will go for taking Mr Osho to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club… I would LOVE that! Ask me tomorrow though and I may choose drawing with Skyla… No, snorkeling with Granny Bread… No, cheerleading with Chloe… No, watching stand up with Billy. IT’S TOO HARD!!
Not to spoil anything, but I absolutely loved that Billy finds a happy ending without compromising himself or making any dramatic changes. I love that he simply learns he was good enough all along. As a parent of a child with a stutter, what advice would you give to parents hoping to help their child find the confidence in themselves that Billy finds?
Gosh every journey is so personal. What has helped us may not mean much to anyone else but I guess looking back at our journey with a bit of perspective I would tell my former self that, as with most things in life, stutters and the emotions that are attached to them are forever changing so don’t cling onto one idea of how it is or how it feels.
I hear that you’re working on another novel now. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Yes! It’s a story about a boy called Archie Crumb whose wishes start coming true and he doesn’t know if it is all just a crazy coincidence or whether maybe he has a bit more power over his life than he first thought. It’s a story about positive thinking, self-belief and hope.
Do you have any plans to revisit Billy Plimpton’s story or maybe any of the other children in Bannerdale?
I would LOVE to revisit Billy and everyone at Bannerdale. Watch this space!!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with Mutually Inclusive’s Readers?
It’s time for another Author Spotlight, and I am so excited that today’s Author Spotlight is also a Book Tour Stop for Rochelle Melander’s newest release Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World through Writing.
Rochelle Melander wrote her first book at seven and has published 11 books for adults. Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World through Writing is her debut book for children. She’s a professional certified coach, an artist educator and the founder of Dream Keepers, a writing workshop for young people. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her husband, children, and two dogs. Visit her online at writenowcoach.com or rochellemelander.com
Thank you so much for joining me today! I am so excited to chat with you today, but I was hoping you might start us out by introducing yourself, and telling us a bit about your latest release Mightier Than The Sword: Rebels, Reformers& Revolutionaries Who Changed The World Through Writing.
Thanks so much for welcoming me to your blog! I’m excited to be here.
Let’s start with the important things: I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, not far from Lake Michigan with two dogs, two kids, and my husband, who is also a writer. My family keeps me grounded.
I own the business, Write Now! Coach and coach writers and students who struggle to overcome procrastination and distractions to get their work done. I also edit and do freelance writing. Mightier Than the Sword is my 12th book, and my first book for young people. I’ve wanted to write for young people for a long time, and I am delighted to finally have that chance!
Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World through Writing is a middle grade social justice book that tells the stories of historical and contemporary writers, activists, scientists, and leaders who used writing to make a difference in their lives and the world. The stories are accompanied by writing and creative exercises to help readers discover how they can use writing to explore ideas and ask for change.
Title: Mightier Than the Sword: Rebels, Reformers, and Revolutionaries Who Changed the World through Writing Author: Rochelle Melander Illustrator: Melina Ontiveros Publisher: Beaming Books Published: July 27, 2021 Recommended Ages: 8-13 Years Format: Hardcover
What inspired you to write Mightier Than the Sword?
I’ve been teaching writing to young people for many years. I often use mentor texts as writing prompts—maybe the poems of Richard Wright or Langston Hughes. I tell them stories about the writers, too. Young people liked hearing stories of people like Maria Merian, who at 13 designed an experiment to study the life cycle of silkworms. I also found stories online about young people who wrote to change the world—people that wouldn’t normally be included in a book. After using these stories for years, I felt like it was time to create a resource so that I could share these stories and writing exercises with young people.
Mightier Than the Sword is such a unique book in that it’s both a biography collection and a collection of writing prompts. How did the idea for such a unique format come to you?
I love books that are interactive, that invite the reader to participate in some way. My last book, Level Up: Quests to Master Mindset, Overcome Procrastination, and Increase Productivity invites readers to take on quests to understand and improve their work habits. I wanted Mightier Than the Sword to share the stories about mentors and then encourage young people to write. The writing prompts enabled me to do that.
You cover so many wonderful writers in Mightier Than the Sword, (I think I counted 140 including the mini-biographies peppered throughout) spanning from 978 to present day. There are so many people throughout history who have changed the world with writing. I know it must have been hard to narrow down your selection. How did you select the writers you included?What was the research process like? It must have been quite an undertaking!
I have been collecting names and stories for years. To develop the list, I read many anthologies, searched online, and talked to history and English professors. Then I chose an array of people based on three criteria:
Representation. I wanted children to find a diverse cast of people from a wide range of cultures, life experiences, and writing styles.
Diverse disciplines. I wanted young people to see the unique ways people use writing in their work.
Recognizability. I wanted young people to open the book and recognize some of the writers.
Once the book was accepted by the publisher, we worked together to finalize the list.
Then, I started reading and writing. For each person or document, I read an article on Wikipedia or a history website (https://besthistorysites.net/general-history-resources/). If possible, I read primary sources. Next, I turned to biographies and other history books. After I wrote the chapter, I would often go back through these resources to check my facts.
I wrote the book during the pandemic. I was very lucky. When I had a sense that the libraries were going to close, I spent a wild weekend running around to various libraries in town, checking out books. I think I had over 100 books checked out during that time. And during the research process, I purchased a few books as well.
I know it sounds like a lot of work, and it was—but I really enjoyed digging into the lives of these writers!
Not to ask you to play favorites, but were there any standout subjects that were more fun to research or write about?
I found Charles Darwin’s story to be helpful and inspiring. He goofed off in grade school, skipping out to wander the woods or do chemistry experiments with his brother. (Don’t think he was being studious—he made laughing gas!). He went to college to study medicine but didn’t like it. Then he tried divinity studies (Rev. Darwin?). All along he was chasing after beetles, which was a popular pastime in his day. His father thought he was a failure. A trip around the world launched his career as a naturalist. He spent the rest of his life doing experiments and writing books—while working about 3 hours a day. He was a great dad, keeping detailed journals about their development (they may have been a science experiment to him). And when On the Origin of the Species was published, he spent much of his time promoting his book: by writing letters! I was inspired that Darwin wasn’t the typical overachiever and yet, when he followed his passion, he achieved so much.
The portrait illustrations by Melina Ontiveros are so great, and I love that we get a face to put with the names and stories of each writer featured. I believe Mightier Than The Sword is your first illustrated title? How was your experience working with an illustrator?
Melina is wonderful! I didn’t actually work with her—all the briefings went through my editors. But we’ve gotten to know each other on Instagram and email. She’s going to be a guest on my blog next week (writenowcoach.com/blog). And I hired her to make a Mightier-like portrait of me!
You’ve been writing since you were young, and now assist young writers through your writing workshop Dream Keepers. What books or authors inspired you to write the most as a child?
Hands down, Madeleine L’Engle. In second grade, I fell in love with A Wrinkle in Time. When I was in my first job, I learned she was going to be presenting at a conference in a town nearby. I was lucky enough to meet her. I was also inspired by poets and playwrights. When I was 6, a friend gave me the book, I See a Poem. I read that book so many times. As a teen, I read the play, The Belle of Amherst by William Luce, and fell in love with Emily Dickinson and her poetry. (My favorite was, “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”) I kept a commonplace book, where I copied down quotes and poems I liked. And, I had notebooks where I wrote bad poetry!
Mightier than The Sword is a perfect selection for classrooms with so many writing prompts to choose from. If teachers and young readers only take one thing away from Mightier Than the Sword, what would you want it to be?
I want young readers to see that there are many different kinds of writers and many ways to write. I want Mightier Than the Sword to be an invitation to them, letting them know that the world needs their ideas and stories and activism.
I hope teachers will be inspired by the many types of writing—and use the book as a supplement to their curriculum.
Those are all of my questions. Thank you again for taking the time to answer them all! Is there anything else you’d like to share with Mutually Inclusive’s readers?
Thanks so much for having me. I have a blog where writers talk about how to use their books in the classroom. Feel free to stop by: themightywriters.com.
It’s time for another Author Spotlight! Today, I am chatting with Sarah and Ian Hoffman, the authors of the beloved (and banned) Jacob series, about their most recent release: Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They. I am so excited for this interview, so let’s jump right in.
First of all, I want to thank you both for taking the time to do this interview with me! I am thrilled to talk to you about your latest release Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They, but first, would you mind introducing yourselves to Mutually Inclusive’s readers?
Hi! We’re Sarah and Ian Hoffman. We’re authors, we’re married, and we have two kids, Sam and Ruby. We live in San Francisco in an old Victorian house with the kids, 3 chickens, 2 rabbits, 1 cat, and +/- 30,000 bees. The two of us have been working together on all kinds of projects for the last 25 years.
Jacob’s School Play is the third installation in the Jacob series, and each title focuses on gender nonconformity and the diversity of gender expression. Can I ask what drew you to write about the experiences of gender-nonconforming children?
When our son, Sam, was two, he started to be interested in things traditionally considered “girl things,” like fairies and Disney princess. He started wearing pink t-shirts and growing his hair long. At school, he only played with the girls. By the time he was four, Sam was wearing a tutu at home every day after preschool, and going to ballet class. Every day at preschool he wore the princess dress-up costume. One day, he asked us for a dress that he could wear “for real.” Sam knew that kids at school would make fun of him, but he wanted to wear a dress more than he wanted not to be teased. After that day, he started wearing a dress to school every day.
Sam was the only dress-wearing boy in our community, but we knew he wasn’t the only dress-wearing boy in the world. So we looked for books where Sam could see other kids who were like him. And we discovered there were none! Our desire to help our son see himself reflected in a book inspired us to write one. That was Jacob’s New Dress, which is about a little boy who likes something that’s outside of typical gender roles. Just like a little girl in pants would have been 100 years ago.
Among the unexpected things we discovered while raising a gender nonconforming son was the challenge of public bathrooms. It wasn’t safe to send Sam by himself into any public bathroom, including playgrounds, stores, restaurants—even his own school! Talking with the parents of other kids like Sam, we learned their kids were suffering the same as ours. It looked like the world needed a book about bathrooms, so we got back to work. Our second book, Jacob’s Room To Choose, tackles the subject of kids being allowed to use the bathroom that’s right for them, whatever their gender.
Our third book, Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They! (which came out in May of this year), is about the next subject we wanted to talk about: pronouns!
Title:Jacob’s School Play: Starring He, She, and They Author: Sarah Hoffman and Ian Hoffman Illustrator: Chris Case Publisher: Magination Press Published: May 4, 2021 Format: Picture Book
Fans of the series will see familiar faces like Jacob, Sophie, and Ms. Reeves, but in Jacob’s School Play we meet a new character named Ari, who uses they/them pronouns. Throughout the book, you present identity in such a beautifully simple way, with an emphasis on trusting people’s ability to correctly identify themselves. What was the research process like for Jacob’s School Play? How did you land on this honest and simple representation of pronoun options?
Our research process was messy, broad, and open-ended. We knew what we wanted to write about—pronouns. We also knew that pronouns are in flux and there aren’t many settled rules. So we decided to have a lot of conversations with people—many of them strangers—about potentially uncomfortable topics. Basically we said, “Hey, our kid’s gender nonconforming, and we know what our world is like. But we don’t know anything about you or your world. Do you mind if we ask?” That led to a lot of unexpected and enlightening discussions. There are a lot of people who don’t fit into the boxes society has created.
Eventually we took what we’d learned and turned it into a story. Which was its own messy, broad, and open-ended process. At some point in the writing we started to think about the kind of questions that Jacob would have. Then we thought about how his teacher would respond. Imagining the conversation between those two characters led to a simple explanation of pronouns options. You can explain most topics to a curious 5-year old, if you can distill them down to their essence.
I really like that the focus of the series shifted from learning about Jacob to Jacob learning about other children’s perspectives in Jacob’s School Play. Was it difficult as writers to shift the focus away from Jacob’s experiences toward Jacob’s education around other children’s perspectives?
Now that the book is finished, it seems like a natural and obvious progression. During the writing, it took a while to figure out what we were trying to say, how to say it, and from whose point of view. Writing is just as messy as real life. Surprise!
In the big picture, we’re interested in building a culture of kindness. We hope that when our books are taught, it’s not just to support the kids who are different. We hope our books allow the kids who don’t see themselves reflected in the book to think, “Oh, look. There’s another way of being a kid.” We’re trying to open the doors to new perspectives.
What is the most important message you want young readers to take away from Jacob’s School Play?
The message of all our books is: there’s all sorts of ways to be a kid. So be yourself, be open to new ideas, and don’t hurt anybody else.
Kids are very accepting of new ideas. We’ve noticed that kids are very comfortable with ideas about gender and pronouns. It’s usually the adults who are struggling.
Jacob’sNew Dress is one of the American Library Association’s most banned titles of the decade. How does it make you feel to know that there are folks out there who are attempting to ban the books you’re creating?
How does it make us feel? Like we’re doing the work that needs to be done.
We raised a gender non-conforming boy. We are well aware there are people who are uncomfortable that kids like our son exist. We also know that in unsupportive environments, LGBTQ+ kids are teased, ostracized, bullied, and brutalized. We want to try to prevent these behaviors—before they start—by building a culture that tolerates, values, and celebrates difference.
If our book is getting banned, that means people are actually seeing it in libraries and schools. For every adult trying to ban it, there are even more kids reading it. Those kids are getting the message that it’s ok to be like Jacob, or Sophie, or Ari. There’s nothing we could be prouder of then throwing a lifeline to child who needs it.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to parents of gender non-conforming children?
First, find support—for both yourselves and your children. Join a support group of like-minded parents; bring your child to a group for gender-nonconforming or trans kids. Enlist thoughtful, supportive family and friends to buoy and celebrate your child and your efforts to make their world safe. Read books about parenting gender-creative children, and fill your child’s library with books that reflect gender diversity. Ask your school to be proactive about anti-bullying programs in general and gender education in particular (and if asking doesn’t work, demand it). Educate everyone you can. Gender diversity is a new concept for most people; ignorance and prejudice are deeply ingrained. Even people who love your children—like grandparents—often need time to adjust. See each interaction as an opportunity to educate someone else about the many forms of gender expression.
Remember that your responsibility is to your child, not to manage the discomfort of adults. Walk away from judgment, and shield your child from it as best you can. And when you can’t shield them, teach them to manage it. Teach them the historical context for overcoming bias. When Sam was in kindergarten, we taught him about Rosa Parks and Harvey Milk—regular people who stood up to bias against them and changed the world. Tell your child that the world will change. That it is changing. And that they are helping to change it, just by being themselves.
And lastly: breathe. When you’re the parent of a kid who’s different, it’s easy to overthink everything you do, tempting to try to interpret the significance of everything your kid does, and appealing to try to predict the future. Our job is to accept our kids for who they are, and to protect them from harm. We can’t know who or what our children will evolve into as they grow up. We had no idea that one day Sam would put on pants and cut his hair short (as he did at age 11) and be happy with that choice. We had no idea if he would grow up to be straight, gay, bi, gender-queer, trans, or his own special something—in fact, we still don’t. Sam, like all of us, is a work in progress. All we as parents can do is support our children unconditionally, and be open to who they become.
As a married couple and co-authors, how is it writing with each other? What does a typical workday look like, and how does your creative process work together?
We are very, very lucky to work together. We have the same core values, but very different skills. Sarah thinks fast and big-picture. Ian thinks slowly and resonates with the details. Once we figured out how to interact over work—as opposed to as a couple—we saw that our complimentary skills brought a lot of depth to our work life.
Our writing process is like our parenting process is like our life process—we don’t really separate them. One of us has an idea, and we talk it over to see if it’s a good one. If it is, then someone starts the project. With writing, one of us will generate a first draft, then turn it over to the other for editing/comments/revision. Then it goes back and forth between us until it’s ready. Nowadays we have two very insightful teenagers in our house, and we seek out their opinions. They’re an unexpected bonus!
What should we expect to see from you in the future? Are there more adventures for Jacob on the horizon?
Yes, there are! Right now we’re working on a book about holidays. Jacob and his friends are such a great crew, we feel like they’re ready to handle another broad, messy, open-ended topic that’s rich in meaning.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers of this blog?
We just want to thank you for the work that you do to bring inclusive and engaging books to kids. We love the positive energy you bring to the field. Thank you for including us!
Thank you both so much for your time, and for creating books that radiate warmth, love, and inclusion.
I am thrilled to announce another additional feature here on Mutually Inclusive! Today marks the very first Author Spotlight, which will be a weekly introduction to the authors behind some of my favorite titles, both new and old. Today I am honored to share an interview with Norene Paulson with you all.
Norene Paulson is a former middle school language arts teacher who loves words. She is the author of Benny’s True Colors, and her articles have also appeared in several children’s magazines including Highlights. Norene lives with her husband on a country acreage in Iowa.
Norene has joined me today to chat about her newest title: What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair? released by Albret Whitman on March 23rd. What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair? follows a young girl named Bea, who has alopecia areata, as she figures out how to participate in Silly Hair Day without any hair.
First, thank you for agreeing to take part in this interview! I really appreciate you taking the time to answer all my questions. To get started, could you tell me and my readers a bit about yourself, and your latest title What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair?
Thank you for featuring me, Devyn. I’m thrilled to share with your readers a little about me and my writing journey, including my latest title What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair?
I’ve been writing kidlit for literally decades. I started writing kids’ nonfiction (now known as STEM) articles for children’s magazines when my boys were small (and they are both in their 30’s now) and was relatively successful in that market. However, the more Berenstain Bear and Little Critter books I read to them, the more I decided I wanted to try my hand at writing picture books. Well, I spent a lot of years perfecting my skills and FINALLY in 2018 I connected with my agent, Naomi Davis of BookEnds Literary Agency, through a #PBPitch Twitter party. About six weeks later, we sold my debut book, Benny’s True Colors to Imprint/Macmillan.
Bea, the main character in What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair?, has alopecia. What inspired you to write about alopecia?
I didn’t intentionally set out to write a story about alopecia. The inspiration for the heart of the story came about because as a former middle school teacher, I was always uncomfortable when events or activities were planned that left some students sidelined for whatever reason. Spirit Week was one of those events. The connection with alopecia was the result of my remembering a teaching colleague with alopecia who dressed up for all the Spirit Week Days except Silly Hair Day. That led me to “What if a student had alopecia, how could they join in the fun and not be sidelined?
What was the research process like for What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair?
I started by simply learning more about the different types of alopecia by visiting websites such as http://www.naaf.org (National Alopecia Areata Foundation) and http://www.childrensalopeciaproject.org (Children’s Alopecia Project). From there I read personal experience stories and started to feel a connection to kids experiencing hair loss.
What is the key message you hope young readers take away from What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair?
I hope Bea’s story empowers young readers to speak up when they witness someone being left out or sidelined. Everyone deserves the opportunity to participate in every activity every time, so be the problem-solver…be the changemaker. I also hope that adults charged with planning activities for kids will think twice about how they, too, can make their activities inclusive.
I also covered your debut Benny’s True Colors recently, and while the two books follow very different characters, they both have themes of acceptance and inclusion. Does your previous experience as a teacher influence the inclusive themes of your books?
Definitely. I write books about friendship, acceptance and inclusion because as a former middle school teacher I witnessed first-hand how difficult growing up can be particularly for those kids who for whatever reason don’t fit the mold. Lessons in kindness, friendship, acceptance and inclusion need to be introduced early in a child’s life and repeatedly reinforced.
What does your typical workday look like as a children’s book author?
The only thing typical about my writing workday is I try to do something writing-related every day. With two books released within four months of each other, a lot of my time now is spent on marketing and promotion. I didn’t realize the amount of time that requires. Plus, I am in two promo groups so enjoy spending time online promoting other authors/ friends.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
I love revising. A blank page (or screen doc) is intimidating. I struggle to get the first ideas written, but once there is a beginning, a middle, and an end, I love dancing with the text. Add in some feedback from my critique partners, and I’m Happy Dancing! Also, I love having a deadline. A procrastinator by nature, I can have an exciting story idea but find hundreds of reasons not to sit down and start writing. However, if I know I have to have something completed by a certain date, that deadline jumpstarts my creativity.
If you weren’t writing books, what do you think you’d be doing?
I’m sure whatever it was would involve books…maybe working in a library or bookstore. I did work in a library cataloging new books for a few years. I really enjoy working surrounded by stacks of books.
What can readers expect from you in the future? Will we see any more titles featuring Bea and/or Shaleah?
I have several manuscripts out on submission now, so keeping my fingers crossed that one or both catch the eye of an editor. I have several manuscripts in various stages of revision—neither to the point of sharing with my critique partners. As always, there are ideas swirling around in my head. I like to say they are percolating. As far as another story featuring Bea and Shaleah, I do have an idea percolating, but in publishing there’re no guarantees.
Anything else you’d like to share with Mutually Inclusive’s readers?
If something I’ve written has touched them in a positive way, I’d love for them to reach out. Knowing that someone has connected with my words warms my heart and keeps me writing. I can be found on Twitter @NorenePaulson or on Instagram @nrpaulson. They can also check out my website norenepaulson.com.
Thanks, Devyn! I’ve enjoyed chatting with you and your readers.
Thank you for joining us, Norene. I had a blast!
Don’t forget that you can pick up your very own copy of What’s Silly Hair Day With No Hair? wherever books are sold, including Bookshop and Amazon. (Please note: Some links provided are affiliate links. Affiliate links allow me to receive a small commission for recommendations at no cost to you. This commission is used to maintain this site and to continue bringing content to you. I always appreciate your support!)
I hope you all enjoyed this new feature, and I look forward to sharing many more author reviews with you soon!